Sometimes we fool ourselves into believing that things have improved dramatically since the days of General Ziaul Haq, when culture and free expression in numerous forms were ruthlessly crushed. But there are reminders every now and then that the legacy of those times lives on. The latest such reminder came at the Nairang Art Gallery in Lahore, run by leading architect Nayyer Ali Dada. In a sequence of events that took place a few days ago, the Station House Officer (SHO) of the Shadman Police Station took it upon himself to raid the gallery and rough-up the women curator apparently on the grounds that she was wearing unsuitable clothing and associating with men. He said that the whole environment was ‘indecent’.
Shockingly, even now no action has been taken against the SHO despite an outcry from human rights activists who have loudly condemned his uncouth and entirely uncalled for actions. FIRs were registered against the curator under an obsolete act dealing with public immorality. We do not know if there is anything more behind the matter, but the Punjab government has certainly done little to redeem itself in the eyes of the people by failing to crack down against the SHO who would be well advised to tackle real crime rather than harassing people guilty of no wrongdoing.
The Nairang Gallery is intended to serve as a place where open discussion can take place somewhat on the pattern of the old Pak Tea House which has faded away. We need many such forums. Those who gathered at the location likely to be progressive and forward-looking. It seems our police, which have taken upon itself the kind of role the Taliban reserve for their vigilante squads, is determined to leave no space for such people in our society. As it is, they are falling into the category of a minority in an environment where a more conservative code has grown more and more dominant. But their rights need at all costs to be protected and action taken against the SHO for his uncouth behaviour.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2011.